Students at Ariel College in the West Bank can accumulate credits for degrees by taking religious studies courses in seminaries and yeshivas in various settlements.
While its television campaign portrays students pursuing "breakthrough technological research" at Ariel College, the institution actually allows students to substitute Jewish history courses with religious studies. The college recently started calling itself a University Center, in the wake of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's recent announcement that he would recognize a five-year-old government decision to formally upgrade Ariel's status to a university.
These courses are not presented in any academic format or supervised by the college. The Council for Higher Education has never discussed these courses, much less approved them, either.
College executive committee chairman, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, says the college supervises the studies by choosing the seminaries and based on its impression of the study contents. These studies are required in addition to the curriculum, so there is no need for the Council for Higher Education's approval, he says.
One of the leading programs offered by the college is in the Har Bracha seminary, adjacent to the yeshiva whose head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, made headlines when he urged soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements.
Another program the college promotes, although it has no students at present, is in the Noga seminary in the settlement of Kedumim. This is where Rabbi Uzi Sharbaf of Hebron, who was one of several Jewish terrorists convicted in the 1980s for the murder of four Palestinians in Hebron, teaches a course on "the importance of the Land of Israel." The Ariel students taking courses at Har Bracha study alongside the yeshiva students and receive credits.
Yizhar Ashur, who is in charge of the program, sees no problem with the lecturers' lack of academic education. "We don't pretend to give Jewish history courses, this is a religious seminary. They study six or seven times more than they would for 12 credits in Jewish history, so the college encourages it," he says.
Ashur says the cooperation with Ariel University Center helps to expand the settlement, which is one of his goals. About two thirds of the new students in the program combine academic and religious studies.
"The heart of the program is to inherit the land," he says. "And this is what we're doing here." Ashur adds that studies in Ariel and Har Bracha are meant to counteract the political views "dominating" other academic institutions. "The history departments are dominated by radical left-wingers, the history books in schools have been upgraded and are no longer Zionist," he says.
The women studying at the religious Shilat seminary in the Alonei Shilo settlement near Karnei Shomron live in caravans on the hill slope. Yafit, 22, says studies include Jewish law and "awareness" lessons. Seminary Rabbi Shai Green says the program is intended for women interested in living "in a pioneering, idealistic environment and a spiritual religious atmosphere."
He says the seminary emphasizes practical lessons - "How to work on myself, how to extract the maximum, how to live a religious life, etc."
Hebrew University President Menahem Ben Sasson believes such a study program does not enable study content and degree quality to be supervised. "Some of the [graduates] have learned a little bit about family purity laws and how to boil dishes to make them kosher for Passover. [They will get a degree] just because the seminary they went to was sponsored by another institution. There's no way of looking inside the academic framework that gave them the degree," he says.